The first televised 'great debate' turned the senator into a celebrity

By David Hochman
Updated September 27, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT

It was, perhaps, the most famous bad makeup job of the postwar era. And on the night of Sept. 26, 1960 — as Richard Nixon’s pallor turned increasingly pastier during his first of four televised debates with Sen. John F. Kennedy — it forever transformed the face of politics and television. The problem, of course, was that the then Vice President needed more than just a thin glaze of Max Factor’s Lazy Shave cosmetic powder to do battle with the Adonis from Hyannis. Nixon needed rest (he’d spent the previous night racing to five different rallies around Chicago, where the debate was staged), antibiotics (a knee infection had triggered a 102-degree temperature), and some serious telegenics coaching. He also should have recognized the surging power of TV. ”Television is not as effective as it was in 1952,” he’d told the New York Herald Tribune earlier in the campaign. ”The novelty has worn off.”

As if. In 1950, only 1 in 10 American families owned a TV set. But by 1960, under the collective charms of Uncle Miltie, Buffalo Bob and Howdy Doody, and the lovable Lucy, that number had rocketed to 9 in 10. Slotting politicians into such a mix was bound to shake things up. So what if Nixon and Kennedy were discussing nuclear arms? Suddenly, it was all about entertainment. ”It didn’t really come down to the better man,” says 60 Minutes executive producer Don Hewitt, who directed the debate. ”It came down to the better performer. The matinee idol won.”

Cecil B. DeMille couldn’t have cast a better leading man than Kennedy. Tanned and elegant in his impeccably tailored suit, he sat comfortably at the beginning of the telecast with legs crossed, hands folded in his lap. He’d spent the afternoon relaxing in his hotel room, listening to Peggy Lee records. And though during the debate he would deliver stump appeals he’d made scores of times, Kennedy seemed fueled by a newfound sense of purpose. Nixon, meanwhile, was plagued by a nasty case of the sweats.

Ironically, people who listened to the ”Great Debate” on radio thought Kennedy blew it. Nixon sounded persuasive, poking holes in Kennedy’s views on everything from U.S.-Soviet diplomacy to federal debt reduction. ”The boy didn’t win,” Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson reportedly said after hearing the event on a car radio. But that didn’t matter. Says ABC’s news analyst Jeff Greenfield: ”More than almost any other event, the debate helped propel the rise of political consultants and style over substance, because it was dominated by looks. That’s now an inescapable reality in politics, like it or not.”

Time Capsule: Sept. 26, 1960

Moviegoers were crazy for Psycho; TV viewers marshaled attention for Gunsmoke; Joy Adamson took pride in her best-selling lion tale Born Free; and Connie Francis lamented in song that ”My Heart Has a Mind of Its Own.”